It’s about 800 miles due east from Niafunké, Mali, the hometown of guitarist Vieux Farka Touré, to Agadez, Niger, where guitarist Omara “Bombino” Moctar grew up. While hailing from different ethnic groups, they’re united by the vast Sahara Desert, the ecosystem that dominates northern Africa and has long nurtured sinewy grooves that feel like an essential tributary for the blues. In a guitar pairing as pregnant with incendiary promise as any in the world, they hit the UC Theatre Thursday as part of their joint Sons of Sahara tour.
Vieux, the son of the late Malian guitar legend Ali Farka Touré, has a rich track record of collaborating with disparate artists. He recorded two critically hailed projects with Israeli singer/pianist Idan Raichel for Cumbancha and 2015’s singular Touristes with American singer Julia Easterlin (for San Francisco-based Six Degrees Records). “I love when you mix the music,” Touré told me before a tour with Raichel. “You have to look for different music. It changes you and it’s really good for me.”
In Bombino, Touré has found an ideal creative partner. Last year he became the first musician from Niger ever nominated for a Grammy Award, a distinction he earned for his captivating album Deran (Partisan Records). The nod for best world music album offered one more indication that this galvanizing artist is the most important new voice following in the wake of Tuareg rockers Tinariwen (who happened to perform at the UC last week).
Like his Saharan kinfolk, Bombino had to flee his homeland after making music supporting Tuareg independence. He’s been on the move ever since, often performing with a band mixing Tuaregs and American musicians like Vermont drummer Corey Wilhelm, who’s played a key role in Bombino’s ongoing evolution. He joined the band in 2013 and “after a while I realized that Bombino is not like other artists/arrangers,” Wilhelm wrote in an email “He has a very different approach to performance. Every concert is totally different and he plays with the intensity of his soul and body. Nothing in the show is premeditated which was very different for me, but after some time I came to embrace it and really enjoy it. It’s still a challenge every night to match the intensity of his playing.”
It’s an intensity born out of political struggle. When the Tuareg people of northern Niger once again decided to take up arms in the face of government neglect and repression in 2007, Bombino joined the fight with his guitar. Guitars, alas, aren’t much of a match for machine guns, and Bombino ended up fleeing for his life.
“The music was motivating young people to go to the fight,” Bombino told me in a 2012 interview, speaking in French and the Tuareg language Tamasheq through an interpreter. “The government knows the guitar is an instrument to mobilize people. They targeted musicians and we lost two band members. I left the country, rather than get arrested and maybe killed.”
In escaping from the war zone, Bombino sought refuge in Burkino Faso. The story of how he went from exile and obscurity to appearing as a special guest with Stevie Wonder and Rickey Minor at the Hollywood Bowl’s 2011 “Global Soul” showcase is a tale of serendipity and dogged musical sleuthing. Boston-based filmmaker Ron Wyman was traveling by truck through the Sahara working on a documentary about Tuareg cultural identity when he first listened to Bombino’s music on a homemade cassette tape. As the only music in the vehicle during a two-week trek, the songs fused with the desert expanse.
“Bombino’s music became the soundtrack for this magnificent region,” Wyman recalled. “I had a feeling he would really speak to the question I was exploring, about how Tuareg traditional life is adapting to the modern world.”
By the time Wyman made it to Bombino’s hometown, Agadez in northern Niger, the guitarist had already fled to Burkino Faso. The filmmaker tracked him down there, and helped organize a concert of Tuareg exiles, a musical experience so moving that Wyman decided to help get Bombino’s career back on track. He ended up producing his critically 2011 hailed album Agadez (Cumbancha Discovery).
Bombino’s life has been shaped by the Tuareg struggle from birth. An earlier rebellion sparked by a prolonged drought in the 1980s forced his family to flee to Algeria, which is where he first heard the electric guitar. By the time his family returned to Agadez, Bombino was determined to become a musician. Soaking up the music of Jimi Hendrix and Dire Straits, he developed his own version of ishoumar, a style forged in refugee camps blending lean, stinging blues and rock-inflected guitar lines with traditional Tuareg themes and forms.
Recruited by Niger’s pioneering bandleader Hasso Akotey, he gained widespread attention for his guitar prowess. Bombino made his first trip to North America in 2006 when he performed with Akotey’s band Tidawt in conjunction with “The Art of Being Tuareg,” a dazzling exhibition displaying jewelry and textiles made by Agadez artisans organized by UCLA’s Fowler Museum and Stanford University.
The tour opened up numerous doors, most importantly offering Bombino the opportunity to collaborate with Keith Richards and Charlie Watts on a Tuaregized version of the Rolling Stones “Hey Negrita” (a track included on Stones saxophonist Tim Ries’s 2008 album Stone’s World: The Rolling Stones Project Volume 2). Later in 2006, Bombino had an even more unlikely brush with celebrity when he served as a desert guide for Angelina Jolie.
Any hope of parlaying those encounters into an international career was dashed by the outbreak of rebellion in Niger and Mali. He’s been working to help unify the Tuaregs ever since. While Vieux Farka Touré hails from the Fulani and Songhai people, Mali has been the center of struggle for Tuareg autonomy for centuries.
“My dream is that Tuareg areas must get peace,” Bombino said. “That will allow us work and develop our countries and keep our own culture. If we preserve our nomadic culture and moral code, we won’t need to run away from our homeland.”